As Blythewood Turns: Blythewood Chamber bites the hand that feeds it

It was called to my attention last Thursday that a letter had been published in The Country Chronicle from an enraged Belinda Portnall, chairwoman of the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce, verbally attacking Blythewood Town Council members Eddie Baughman and Tom Utroska for expressing their concerns during the Aug. 21 Town Council meeting about the Chamber’s accountability regarding certain Eclipse events it organized that were funded by the Town. Portnall also verbally slapped The Country Chronicle around for reporting those Councilmen’s comments to the public.

So, of course, my interest was piqued. I found a copy of The Country Chronicle and read the letter.

After reading it, I can tell you that, had that same letter been sent to The Voice, we might not have published it in its entirety for the simple reason that our letter writing policy clearly states that letter writers are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

But first, let’s talk about Ms. Portnall’s call for a retraction of news reported by The Country Chronicle, a newspaper that I started in 1999 and now compete with.  I address this issue not so much to defend The Country Chronicle, since its General Manager is perfectly capable of defending her paper, but to defend the freedom of the larger press to inform the public about how public money is spent by its government. While the Chamber is certainly not a government, it is subject to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act when it receives government funds.

Portnall’s stinging rebuke of Robert White’s reporting is reprehensible, baseless and nothing short of a call for censorship of the local media. Mr. White simply reported what was said in a public meeting by a public official. That is what reporters are supposed to do. He did not opine or weigh in in any way. There was no editorial or aside. He just reported. Reading the transcript from The Voice’s own recording of the meeting, it appears he reported accurately.

And Ms. Portnall wants the paper to retract that?  Or is she really asking the paper to either gloss over what was actually said in the meeting or to not report at all on public comments by council members that rub her the wrong way? In either case, such a call represents nothing less than a desire to censor the news.

While it is unconstitutional for a government to censor the news media, censorship by private pressure groups, such as the Chamber, happens all too frequently with the goal of intimidating the news media into compliance.

Considering the financial and influential power that the Blythewood Chamber is amassing in the community these days under the leadership of Executive Director Mike Switzer, Ms. Portnall’s furious, unbridled, open call for a retraction of a simple, accurate newspaper report is chilling.

It is equally disturbing that the Chamber would accept public money (lots of public money) from the Town government, profit from it, not do what they said they would do with some of it, then publish an entire newspaper page of shameless bellyache when they receive a little well-deserved criticism from  the folks who actually financed the events.

Ms. Portnall’s criticism of The Country Chronicle’s reporting was equally astonishing considering that The Country Chronicle is, by far, the Chamber’s biggest cheerleader and is a Chamber member.

As for Ms. Portnall’s accusation that Mr. Utroska scrutinized the Chamber without disclosing all the facts, I would beg to differ with some of Ms. Portnall’s ‘facts.’

For instance –

When Chamber Executive Director Mike Switzer requested funds for the events, he told Council that, with some of the funds, the Chamber would provide the Town with 5,000 plastic souvenir bags featuring the Town logo on the front. They were to contain brochures of all the events and a pair of eclipse glasses. Instead, the souvenir bag featured the Chamber’s logo, not the Town’s. Some of the listings in the brochures were printed out of order while others were incorrect.

The 5,000 glasses, ordered from China (per one of the chamber members who ordered them with funds provided by the Chamber), turned out not to be authorized by NASA and had to be recalled. This put not only the Chamber in a potential legal conundrum, but the Town and all the paying sponsors who had already handed out the glasses to their customers as well.

The glasses also were emblazoned with an eyeglass company’s phone number and logo, and with the Town’s logo about the size of a dime. There was no serial number of any kind on the glasses, which should have been a red flag from the get-go. While the Chamber did acquire about 500 more glasses from the City of Columbia, they carried Columbia’s logo, again, not the Town’s.

And if Ms. Portnall’s argument is that there were so many errors in the brochure because the Chamber didn’t take over the weekend events from Bravo Blythewood until it was too late to reprint the brochures, there’s something missing there, because Bravo Blythewood’s eclipse event was DOA at the June 14 Town Council meeting (more than two months before the eclipse and plenty of time to reprint brochures) after neither the A-Tax committee nor Council would authorize the $34,000 Bravo was asking for the event.

The irony is that, while the Chamber’s eclipse event was on the agenda on Aug. 21, Council members decided not to formally discuss it. They voted instead, to postpone the review of expenses, etc until the September meeting since they felt it was too soon after the event for a full evaluation. What ensued was lots of praise for the Chamber and a couple of comments about things that didn’t come off as promised when the funds were awarded. And that was it.

 


Since the Aug. 21 Council discussion was not a significant discussion, and no decisions were made at that meeting regarding the Chamber’s handling of the event, The Voice chose to hold the powder until it came up for full discussion at the September Council meeting and report on the issue then.

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